Reidar Storaas surveys the life and works of Edvard Grieg

Gramophone Sun 15th June 2014

Norway is bending over backwards. Nothing less can be expected when a national hero is being celebrated. One hundred and fifty years after Edvard Grieg's birth it is clear that the little man has been, and still is, the collective symbol of Norwegian musical life, of dominating significance for posterity. The anniversary is being celebrated to an extent which no other Scandinavian cultural personality has shared in. Throughout the world and in each corner of this long and rocky country, Grieg's music is being played and sung. Month by month cultural life is like a seething birthday party with events being counted in four figures. Schools, concert societies, radio and TV are all heavily involved. 

In addition, all the festivals bear witness to the anniversary, not least the Bergen Festival which is celebrating its own 40 years. New Grieg-inspired works are being launched, one of the notable being Alfred Schnittke's Homage to Grieg which is being christened on the actual anniversary, June 15, in the Grieg Hall. Outside, new busts are being unveiled, in addition to Ingebrigt Vik's statue which is already to be found in three places in the city. Then there is the enormous anniversary exhibition in the museum building where Edvard Grieg was buried in September 1907 without clerical participation but with the population of the whole city as mourners. Parts of the exhibition will be permanent fixtures in a new museum being built in connection with Nina and Edvard Grieg's home, Troldhaugen, with over 100,000 visitors annually. A few years ago the place was provided with an architecturally successful chamber music hall. 

The Grieg anniversary is not restricted to retrospective veneration of the master. The vision of the national Grieg anniversary is that it would bring to life the struggling, striving and victorious composer and make a broad public familiar with less well-known parts of his work. As all sections of musical life are involved in the celebrations, from nursery schools to theatres, jazz clubs and folk-music festivals, the project has succeeded in arousing a unique commitment and enthusiasm everywhere, except for private sponsors who have deserted culture totally in favour of the Olympic Games in Lillehammer. In this way the anniversary will not be restricted to a narrow tribute to a genius, but will be a general demonstration of vitality in European musical heritage. 

However, a film project which could have contributed to giving even greater attention to Grieg's achievements has not got off the ground. This is due to financial difficulties, but the reason probably lies elsewhere: Grieg's life does not dramatically appeal in the same way as those of MozartVerdi, Liszt and Johann Strauss. His biography reveals few external confrontations, the conflict with French anti-semites following Grieg's protest against the verdict in the Dreyfus case and the subsequent demonstrations against him at the Colonne concert in Chatelet are probably the most action-filled elements in his life story.

He constantly restrained his inherent temperament and his life was sober and controlled in all ways, without spilling over into bourgeois narrow-mindedness. Amorous affairs with a young artist in Paris and a pianist who captivated him in Copenhagen do not provide enough material to make a film drama. The drama in Grieg's life was elsewhere, in all the contrasts and conflicts in his own mind with regard to the creative process in letters which are our main source of understanding his life and psyche. New and augmented editions with selections taken from more than 20,000 letters plus his diary are on the market. Together with other books they join an already very rich Grieg library. 

The centre of Grieg worship is, understandably, Bergen – Norway's second largest city which even when Grieg was born could look back on 800 years of history. Strategically located on the North Sea Basin it was a central trading port with the continent and Mediterranean countries for cod from the fish-rich coast of northern Norway. Grieg's Scots ancestors who emigrated to Bergen were also involved in trade with fish products. The family business experienced glorious times before Grieg's father Alexander, the English vice-consul, in his later years was unsuccessful with shiploads of up to 10,000 lobsters – and went bankrupt. 

His son Edvard gradually became the salvation of several family members. For Grieg was not only successful in his art, he also earned a great deal of money for it. Peters in Leipzig realized what a goldmine they had acquired, and it is said the publishers hoisted a flag every time a new volume of Lyric Pieces arrived from Grieg. His album leaves fluttered throughout the world in tens of thousands of copies. Even a violin sonata could be sold easily when it was signed Grieg. During the course of a few months Sonata No 3 sold 1500 copies and overtook even those by Brahms. The composer himself was his best PR, and never did sales of music do so well as when the composer went on tour to London and the continent 's musical capitals: Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam, Warsaw, Vienna. 

He achieved his greatest sense of happiness when he did his best in meeting a large public. Extensive concert work and contact with European cultural life were a necessity for him. Socially conscious and absorbed with the then new musical life and theatre, he felt he lived in a different way in the continental cities than in the humble circumstances further north. Abroad he met colleagues with whom he could converse on an equal footing, Tchaikovsky, Liszt and Brahms 'who I always drank with' in Vienna. He met Clara Schumann, Bruckner and Dvořák, Delius became his friend. The strenuous journeys affected his health, he was weak from the age of 16 when pleurisy led to one of his lungs not functioning and made his figure shaky and crooked. 

Surrounded by admiring Danish friends he was able, in his Copenhagen youth, to write his first works in a personal style, such as the Humoresques, Op 6, Piano Sonata and the First Violin Sonata. He returned to the idyllic Sjaelland region as a 25-year-old to put his Piano Concerto to paper, a formidable success even at its premiere. During later stays abroad, Pegasus did not want to move. He needed to go home to self-chosen isolation in lonely cottages in order to compose. In an important period of his life he hid himself away in the beautiful Hardanger fjord where nature's power and contact with prominent exponents of the folk music instrument, the Hardanger fiddle, triggered a rich creative period.

During the course of one winter he wrote his G minor String Quartet and Den bergtekne for baritone and orchestra, 'Never has my heart's blood flowed as in these things'. He wrote the Album for Male Voices, Op 30, and began the Vinje songs. During the next summer he returned to Hardanger to write the Holberg Suite (first for piano, then for chamber orchestra) and the four-handed Norwegian dances, Op 35. 

The people of Bergen enticed Grieg to his home city as an orchestral conductor, something he endured for two years in constant conflict with conservative board members and choristers who chose to go to the ball rather than rehearsals. It all ended with celebrations and resplendent speeches for Mr Grieg who had 'raised the city's musical life'. He himself quit with the words 'never again!'. And he kept his word. After 1882 he never again held a permanent position. 

In 1944 the German occupiers sailed a fully-loaded ammunition ship into Bergen's inner harbour where it exploded, an unintentional salute to Hitler's birthday on April 20th. The blast killed 138 people and large parts of the city were razed to the ground, including Grieg's childhood home which was located in a densely built-up area. Even great businessmen and consuls did not live in a finer area, but in the busy streets frequented by many real characters. Edvard's adolescence was characterized by great freedom, and the whole atmosphere of the city stimulated the boy's fantasies. On his 60th birthday he made a beautiful 'commemorative wreath' for his home: 'Bergen's achievements and enterprise of all kinds have helped form me, indeed I truly believe in the virtue of cod and coalfish [smasei in Bergen dialect] in my music'.

Reminiscences from his childhood years are found in his autobiographical piece My First Success, a charming self-portrait characterized by the originality and fresh ability to observe which marks his written statements. This is a masterly essay along the lines of those he wrote on Schumann and Mozart. As a correspondent for the Bergensposten he arrived in Bayreuth in 1876 to attend the first performance of Wagner's Ring. The visit gave rise to a series of journalistic models and eminently readable reports on the event. 

With the glow of enthusiasm in his young heart, Grieg came from the metropolis of Leipzig, via the lesser, but still continental conditions of Copenhagen, to the provincial capital Kristiania (Oslo) to make his contribution to developing the cultural life of his homeland. A country was not a nation until it had established a professional orchestra declared Grieg, and set himself the task of creating one. He was soon to discover that he shared Uria's fate.

Terrible horn players, ignorance and indifference from the circles which should have stood by him, made him tear his hair in despair. The young idealist put up with the conductor's toils and irritations for a miserable fee which had to be supplemented by income from music lessons, a necessary solution for the impulsive and impatient artist who certainly lacked talent as a teacher. The cold indifference that Grieg met during these years provoked a hatred for Kristiania which remained with him for the whole of hts life, despite repeated concert successes and great acclaim in later years. But the symphony orchestra he nurtured has developed in time and now exists in the form of the internationally celebrated Oslo Philharmonic. 

'We played four hands and so we were engaged' Grieg said about his relationship with his cousin Nina Hagerup. They married, despite their parents' express disapproval. His wife Nina may have been the composer's muse in the springtime of love, when she inspired him to works such as Two brown eyes and I love you. Without formal vocal training, but musically gifted, she was his preferred interpreter of romances and escaped the fastidious and demanding composer's bull of excommunication later in life: 'I hate female singers, one and all!'.

What she could not do for Edvard was achieved by Frants Beyer. The lawyer was Grieg's closest friend and the only one in which he could confide completely: 'you are the only one who hasn't forsaken me'. Two romantics who cultivated a friendship straight out of the Romantic era, Beyer made up for what Grieg lacked in a practical sense. He sorted out the composer's major and minor everyday problems, was his financial adviser and bank, his wailing wall and provider of fun, his untiring inspiration and wise conversation partner in cultural questions – in brief his daily sun, continuously shining and life-giving.

Grieg could not be without him. If Beyer had bought a plot and built a house, Grieg would have bought the neighbouring plot and left his Troldhaugen villa. Grieg himself, with his fund of knowledge and trained ear, did not write down folk tunes correctly, but even here his friend generously came to his aid. Beyer's disparagement is the reason for the revisions in the Norwegian Folk-Songs, Op 66, one of the most interesting in the genre. Nina Grieg survived her husband by 28 years and used the time to systematically remove each line of notes which could spoil the image of the ideal, harmonious artistic couple as they appeared in so many handsome photographs in international publications. 

Edvard Grieg measured 1.52m (4'9") in his stockinged feet, was slight and frail. As an adult he only weighed 50 kilos. When he came to Leipzig at the age of 15, one of his fellow students took him under his wing, as a child – a humiliating experience for a student of the conservatoire. Very soon his independent talent showed itself, and after five years he passed his examinations with brilliant results. Against this background it seems incomprehensible that later in life he should so maliciously attack the conservatoire and 'useless ballast' he had carried with him. This can only partly be due to the constantly recurring problems with musical form. The explanation lies maybe more in the way of thinking in the circles which struggled for a national cultural life, independent of German influence. Grieg may thus have been influenced by his poet friend Bjørnson who belittled the musician's stay in Leipzig because it was not 'national' enough. 

Having no heirs, Grieg left all his music, manuscripts and letters to Bergen library and all future income from his work to a fund, which, when it matured in 1962, amounted to 65 million kroner. The proceeds have been a great blessing for his native city, including considerable contributions to the Musikselskabet Harmonien, the orchestral institution which was founded in 1765 and is today one of the oldest in the world. 

Norway owes much to Grieg, and this gratitude is being clearly expressed these days as Norwegians take him into their hearts more intensely than ever. He is the musical champion who appeared at the time his country needed him most. He contributed to giving his countrymen a national identity and self-confidence. He had a significant influence on the development of 20th-century music. This influence did not stop with the Scandinavian symphonists Sibelius and Nielsen, but applied equally to the French impressionists. Ravel is supposed to have said that he had not written a line which was not influenced by Grieg, and the impulse for Bartók's folk-music arrangements are easy to demonstrate. But above all, Grieg is the creator of quite natural and also sophisticated music, a popular composer with an effortless relationship with the public, as he is able to speak to the heart to an exceptional degree.

This article first appeared in the June 1993 issue to mark the 150th anniversary of Grieg's birth.

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